ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2013 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 59, No.1 - Spring 2013
Editor of this issue: Jurgita Staniškytė

Book Review

Baliutytė, Elena and Donata Mitaitė, eds. Baltic Memory: Processe of Modernization in Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian Literature of the Soviet Period. Vilnius: The Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, 2011. ISBN 978-609-425-042-2.

Probably one of the most important and intriguing topics in postcolonial Baltic criticism is the literary legacy of the Soviet years. Therefore, it was hardly by chance that a collection of articles on the subject appeared in Lithuania in 2011 designed to review efforts to counter Soviet ideology and the parallel process of modernization evident in the literatures of the three Baltic States. A group of literary scholars from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia set about to categorize the strategies of opposition that arise in comparable social and historical contexts; they focused in particular on writers who looked for ways to challenge the obligatory Soviet conceptual and interpretative models for viewing the world. The collective effort, entitled Baltic Memory: Processes of Modernization in Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian Literature of the Soviet Period, highlights the most important paths taken towards modernization by the oppositional writers from about 1968 to 1988.

Structurally, the book is organized as follows: the first part concentrates on censorship and the means to evade it and the strengthening opposition to Soviet rule (“Literature between Aesop and Clio”); the second and the third parts focus on signs of modernity in Baltic prose and poetry (“Modernist Innovations in Prose” and “Modernist Transformations in Poetry”); the fourth and final part is devoted to critical discourse and documentary literature (“Signs of Change in Critical and Documentary Literature”). A work of such wide scope is most welcome, all the more so since, heretofore, there have been few comparable efforts to explore the uniqueness of literature in the Baltic region and in countries with related cultural roots.

One of the most impressive articles in the first part is “Censorship and Aesopic Language: An Analysis of Censorship Documents (1940-1980)” by the Latvian scholar Raimonds Briedis. Briedis has authored many studies on Latvian literature under the Soviets. He is a highly perceptive critic and, as can be expected, he skillfully lays bare the essence of Soviet ideology by linking it to censorship. His article in Baltic Memory explores various ways of “masking” texts as well as efforts made by Baltic writers to fashion fields of information impenetrable to the censor. Such efforts include subtexts, Aesopian language, and literary devices that play one ideological element off another, or attribute “truths” held by the author to the minor characters. Briedis claims that Baltic writers perfected a variety of strategies for circumventing the censor. Relying on Glavlit documents, he demonstrates that censors kept inventing new strategies for decoding texts and used harsher and harsher methods to maintain control. His article shows how censorship worked and how it was evaded by Latvian writers and, at the same time, offers models, albeit indirectly, for the study of similar phenomena in Estonia and Lithuania.

The year 1968 marks a watershed for Baltic literature in its efforts to undermine the coercive Soviet ideology. That year, it became increasingly clear that writers intended to turn their attention to the literature of the expatriates, and that Czech culture inspired by the Prague Spring had become relevant (see Donata Mitaitė, “Lithuanian Literature in 1968: Interstices of Meaning within Meaninglessness”). This was also the year when themes of hopelessness, absurdity, and disillusionment seemed to gain ground, as did textual strategies for circumventing the censor, ably analyzed by Loreta Mačianskaitė (“Meanings of Madness in Lithuanian Literature from the 1960s to the 1980s”). Mačianskaitė charts the typology of the rather frequent instances of insanity in the prose of such Lithuanian writers as Juozas Glinskis, Juozas Marcinkevičius, and Juozas Aputis. Some of these texts highlight insanity as a way of speaking oppositional truths; other writers, such as Kazys Saja, Icchokas Meras, and Ričardas Gavelis, to name a few, treat insanity as a consequence of the repression characteristic of the Soviet system. Mačianskaite’s typological approach is effective: it shows the essence of the oppositional stance and, in so doing, demonstrates the latter’s validity. On the other hand, it is difficult to agree with her assumption that the theme of insanity, popular in Lithuania, was less so among Latvian and Estonian writers, or that this difference can be explained in terms of distance or proximity to the Protestant tradition. Prose works by the Latvians Visvaldis Lamas, Alberts Bels, Zigmunds Skujiņš, and Marģeris Zariņš refute Mačianskaite’s claim, as do also the Latvian expatriates (Ilze Škipsna, K. Zariņš and others) in whose writing the theme of insanity is even more abundant than it is in Lithuanian literature. Linking instances of the prevalence of this theme to the Protestant tradition seems to be rather problematic.

Resistance to the canons of Socialist realism was particularly strong among Baltic playwrights. At the same time, their work shows unmistakable signs of progression towards such modernist modes of expression as irony, grotesquery, and ambiguity. As Benedikts Kalnačs claims, the critical adoption of literary models, their deconstruction and inversion were the three most important phases in the Baltic writer’s campaign to undermine Soviet conceptual frameworks. Anneli Saro extends this idea and emphasizes the importance of a new element in Estonian theater of the 1990s, in both text and performance, that element being the use of silence as a marker of symbolic emptiness (“Estonian Historical Drama of the 1980s: A Form of Dissidence”). Opposition to Soviet ideology cannot be understood without a reference to the writings of one of Latvia’s most important multigenre authors, Marģeris Zariņš, who revived themes associated with the West, especially those of Faust, Orpheus, and Hamlet (“Wandering Plots in Latvian Literature of the 1970s” by Silvestras Gaižiūnas). The first part of Baltic Memory maintains focus, successfully so, on the most significant tendencies in Baltic literatures that give evidence of their progressive liberation.

Articles in the second part of the book discuss innovations in Baltic prose. Jūratė Sprindytė concentrates on the minor genres, with reason, for though they generally receive little attention from the critics, they were gladly embraced in Soviet times by the silent modernists whose short stories, novellas, and other forms of brief narrative easily accommodated national themes and echoes of existentialism as well as a modernistic style (“The Symbolic Capital of Ideologically Untainted Writers: Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Small Novels”). Anita Rožkalne focuses on an aspect of modernity characteristic of Latvian literature – the ever more courageous efforts by writers to portray borderline situations, such as coercion, as well as tell as much truth as possible about the history of their nation. As one reads the articles grouped in the second part of the book, one is tempted to conclude that it was the women rather than the men who moved both Latvian and Lithuanian prose forward along paths of modernity.

However, Baltic Memory treats, in a rather fragmented manner, the powerful wave of poetry that marked the Soviet years. While it pays heed to a number of facts and phenomena, it does not convey a sense of poetry’s potential for ideas, or the singular newness of its themes. For it was poetry, rather than prose, that inspired and sustained tendencies of inner freedom; poetry reached greater heights of popularity than did prose; it had the explosive force that fired away, breaking through the conventional surfaces. Poetry influenced prose, awakened it, not the reverse. Thus it would have been more logical to first discuss poetry, and then move on to prose. Furthermore, if one considers all the articles in this section, one notices an obvious shortage of overviews, as well as insufficient efforts to highlight the uniqueness of Baltic poetry. Many of the articles are quite interesting because of a specific theme or perspective chosen by the author, for instance, Eva Eglāja-Kristsone’s article on intimacy as a distinguishing feature of Baltic poetry in the 1980s, Rimantas Kmita’s treatment of symbolic links between nature and politics, or the Promethean and Don Quixotic echoes detected by Elena Baliutytė in the poetry of Eduardas Mieželaitis. However, given their limited perspective, these essays do not reflect the scope or the quality of poetry during the Soviet years, nor do they take into account the deeper structural variations that signal a changing world view and thus, ultimately, poetry’s power to undermine an imposed, foreign discourse by awakening national consciousness and memories of the past. Only one article in the book addresses (to some degree) issues related to memory, and it does so by examining memoirs of the former Soviet elite, who prefer to forget rather than remember (“The License to Forget” by Aare Pilv). One wonders why the book was called Baltic Memory when, obviously, memory is not the common thread linking articles collected in the present volume.

It is gratifying to see scholars from the three countries collaborate in compiling a book on the literatures of the Baltic region; a wonderful tradition has thus been maintained. On the other hand, the book seems to have been compiled rather haphazardly, considering it was meant to reflect the uniqueness of Baltic writers as well as their efforts to oppose the ideological models of the Soviets. The book’s content gives a rather narrow view of a very complex process. It would have been better to present as comprehensive an overview as possible of the genres, the main literary tendencies, and the names of the participants, placing the three national literatures side by side to give a clearer view of the links and the differences between them. Such generalizing and analytical appraisals would have helped readers grasp the laws behind the literary processes as well as appreciate the accomplishments specific to each of the three countries, and the uniqueness of the creative efforts that marked the last two decades, from 1968 to 1988, of the Soviet years. 

Inga Stepukonienė
Translated by Vijolė Arbaitė